Saturday, November 14, 2009

Well the gloom didn't last long ... .

Before the tears dried up I was in the advanced stages of absolute delight! Manic? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Two things happened to change the mood and sweep me up in the next wave of experience. First, a message came from Martha, our superintendent, who is at this very moment in New Orleans sitting in a jazz concert at the Louis Armstrong National Park there.

The first message said a simple, "...wish you were here!," and was written from her Blackberry. In a short time the second message arrived and I could read her excitement over the miles. She was charged up from watching a fantastic music program being conducted there that brings together older jazz musicians with young kids to learn and to play the songbook from old New Orleans.

And second; I then did something I rarely ever do. I looked up at the search bar on this journal (just above my picture over the archives) and entered the word "Jazz." Up came several posts that dated from around 2006, and that I'd totally forgotten about. I loved them! It was like rediscovering an old friend -- someone I've known but had let slip away. I felt all of the passion of the subject, and found little that I would not have written today.

It was cause to wonder if I've stopped growing, or, if this means that I've found a consistency that is at the foundation of a philosophy that I hadn't realized I'd adopted? Am I now drawing conclusions? Is this the place in life where I begin to summarize? Are there still areas of discovery open to me, or, am I closing down new avenues of personal development as the years pile on? I think that might be worse than death.

But there was such pleasure in reading my own words that it must be a good thing ... hopefully.

When she returns mid-week, we'll begin to scope out how we might bring such a program to Richmond -- a part of the Home Front story and WWII. This was where jazz and blues were transplanted to the West Coast as the historic African American migration swept musicians in and as the shipyard workers, and the City of Richmond and the Greater Bay Area began to develop new and reclaimed old sounds that today's young are probably totally unaware of.

A new edge to explore; and those earlier writings about jazz may provide the way in. I'll print them out and share them with our interpreters.

So many pieces coming together -- I'm hoping there will continue to be the time and the necessary energy ...

O what I would give for a Faustian bargain ... just another decade or two!

I would hate having to leave in the middle of this movie!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I should never have read them ...

Out of curiosity, I just went back to the Peter Fimright article in today's S.F. Chronicle to read the comments from the readers. I wasn't prepared for what was there. Within the first few minutes I was sobbing. Unsympathetic and vicious racist comments dominated the column -- and I couldn't stop reading. I clicked the forwarding numbers at the bottom of the screen 1, 2, but didn't have the courage to click 3. By that time I'd become completely unstrung. The emotions were coming from somewhere deep inside, and were beyond my control.

I don't feel prepared to explain it now -- maybe later -- but the disappointment was more than was bearable tonight, but I do understand the feelings. I've been here before. And in the past I've always been able to transform those destructive feelings into something positive in some way. I suppose I'm still doing so with each day, but there is a cost; one that I've always been willing to pay.

Maybe I'm simply tired tonight ... and disillusioned.

I guess I'd begun to believe that we'd come further than we have.

Maybe ... .

Photo: Click to enlarge.
Veteran's Day at Port Chicago ... .

I knew during the photo shoot yesterday that these were going to be spectacular photographs. The man behind the camera, the Chronicle's Lance Iversen, captured so much with such a sense of composition that I could hardly wait to get a look at what he'd seen through his lens. These pictures are classics, and I feel so honored to have been invited to be a part of his imagery.

The most dramatic of these, for me, shows the shadow of my fellow ranger, Thaddeus Shay, captured with the dummy torpedoes that are a part of the monument. He is a stand-in for those who are gone -- but whose presence is still felt so powerfully at the site.The story was written by Peter Fimright, and can be accessed online at today's S.F. Chronicle, Bay Area section (D1), lead story. Title: Port Chicago a national park.

There are 5 photographs with the story. These are my favorites. The reflection of the flag captured by the marble monument against the names of the fallen men excited Lance. On the ride back in the van at the end of the shoot, he was reviewing what he'd photographed -- this was the photo that he seemed particularly excited by.

The magic of being able to see with the photographer's eye is something that I envy. Artists like Iversen undoubtedly see so much more than ordinary people do. Before he clicks the camera, he has already seen his picture. And I'm not talking about what is seen in the camera's window -- but before he even sets it up.

I could see his excitement grow as he worked yesterday, and knew in advance that this would be no ordinary shoot. I knew that I'd be grateful for having been invited into his art.

It has been a day of thoughtful quiet.

I worked for a few hours with my friend, Careth "Diddy" Reid, on the E.F. Joseph collection (an almost overwhelming job that neither of us will live to see the end of); painfully, ever-so carefully, separating the thousands of ancient negatives -- is becoming more and more intriguing. Careth's living room has long since become a laboratory of sorts, with packets of once manila packets now stained brown by time -- strewn about. They date from the late 20's through 1979 at the time of this prolific photographer's death.

There is an infinite number of school graduations, Lodge gatherings, church doings, weddings and baptisms, political rallies, sports and entertainment figures, and individual portraits of old friends and strangers who look vaguely familiar but who defy identification. There are the once famous indiscriminately tossed in with the ordinary folks -- but who knew at that time which of these would figure prominently in history? It's one of the joys of age -- the ability to connect our youth with the nation's important stories as they evolved over the decades. It's a bit like glimpsing one's life in reruns.

Then, every now and then, a treasure. This week it was a complete collection of eleven perfect negatives taken at the launching of the SS John Hope at Richmond's Kaiser Shipyard #2 in 1943. Hope was an educator and co-founder of Seneca with W.E.B. DeBois many years ago. Not only are the negatives clear, but we both recognized the participants -- we believe we have Walter and Elizabeth Gordon doing the honors -- he, who later became the Governor of the Virgin Islands.

This has been a week worthy of having yielded at least 10 days within the 7 it was responsible for.

Photos: Do take the time to click on these thumbnails. They're pretty dramatic when enlarged.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Recently I boasted that the value of my work lies in the fact that I'm old enough to know how all the stories turned out ...

Not so. Not completely. Not even close.

On Wednesday, October 28th, at the same hour -- eleven o'clock -- that I was standing beside the SS Red Oak Victory with the NIAD artists, the president was signing the legislation that brought the Port Chicago Naval Weapons Station into the National Park System system as the 392nd national park. I was keenly aware of the ceremonies going on in Washington, D.C. and mentioned to Chris Treadway of the Contra Costa Times that there was another story happening at that very moment, and that it was an important one. We stopped long enough in his covering of the NIAD story so that I could catch him up on what would be coming out of the Capitol. I promised to forward the essential contact numbers when I got back to my office so that he could follow the story. He told me that his father had lived in the little town of Port Chicago at that time and has memories of the blast. Then I put it away.

It was a few days later that a call came to my desk from the San Francisco Chronicle. The reporter had been sent by my supervisor who knew this story meant much to me. The paper wanted an interview about that day long ago when my young husband, Mel, and I had held an afternoon lemonade and hot dogs party at our little duplex in Berkeley where a dozen or so young servicemen from Port Chicago were present. It was the practice in our community to entertain servicemen and women on weekends (though I can't recall ever having an Africa American servicewomen in the mix) because the USO was not racially integrated at that time. We were living under a strict rule of segregation in most facets of our lives during WWII; something that we'd not known a lot about here in the Bay Area until the war came. We were aware of racial prejudice but it was mostly embedded in custom but only rarely codified into law.

That was the Saturday afternoon of July 17, 2004. That very evening the tragic explosion occurred and 320 men were lost, 202 or whom were black. The white men who survived were given 30 days off to recover from the trauma. The black men were ordered back to work immediately, cleaning up the debris and collecting body parts. Their refusal to do so brought 50 of them under court martial and imprisonment. Public response to those events brought about the desegregation of the armed forces under an Executive Order by President Harry Truman. That process took 5 years to complete, but it changed the course of military history.

I'd never met those young men before so there has never been any way to learn if any who'd been with us that day had survived. I'm assuming not. Since becoming a park ranger, each Day of Remembrance when I've participated in the ceremony at the memorial, I look carefully at the 302 names and wonder ... feeling haunted by the sharp memory of those young faces. The only fragment that remains is the name Richert. As I recall, he was only 16 years-old, having lied about his age to enlist to fight for his country. I'm not even sure that that name is the correct one since it is not among those carved into the marble of the memorial plaque.

Last Friday the Chronicle called to ask if I would be willing to be photographed at the memorial for the story which will probably appear in next Sunday's edition. Having relived the story again and again over the years, I was surprised at how much I'm still haunted by this unfinished story even after all the years since. It's freshened again and the feelings of never having known the ending will return in sharp focus tomorrow as the cameraman does his work. He'll never know how little of the trauma will show in his print -- and how deeply-etched are those memories still.

We were all so young ...

...and their lives ended so abruptly. Gone -- with no warning. And they were too young to have left survivors. I cannot recall that any of those youngsters were of an age to have been married.

They continue to live only in the minds of those of us who remember them ...

Again, tomorrow morning, I'll stand at those plaques and try hard to do just that. This is a story that needs desperately to be held in the collective memories of the nation. Now, with thanks to the hard work of Rep. George Miller and Sen. Barbara Boxer, Dr. Robert Allen, Rev. Diana McDaniel, and all the others who have worked so hard and so long to make this a place to be honored and revered. It is now designated as a National Park that will one day have full staffing and a Visitor's Center. Another of the sites that tells the story of our nation.

A story we dare not forget, but one I'm unable to fully remember --

... and I'm still haunted by it.

Photo: Betty at about the age of most of those lost in the Port Chicago explosion. This gives a sense of just how young those young men were.